LA JOLLA — You might not expect a gritty blue-collar town in Wales to have spawned an actor of international stature. But from those humble beginnings came the late superstar Richard Burton.
Right here in San Diego, another native son of Port Talbot, Wales--Stuart McLean--is preparing to follow in Burton's footsteps. But for McLean, performing arts curator and theater manager of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art since 1982, acting is still a part-time profession.
"I'm very serious about acting," McLean said in a recent interview at the museum, "but I have no plans to leave this post. I'm very committed to the expansion of the museum and its theater. I've been involved in this major expansion plan from the start, and I want to see it through. I hope I can endow the museum some day."
Encouraged by his American-born mother, the 29-year-old Welshman came to San Diego seven years ago in search of the American dream.
"I know it's the immigrant mentality," he said, "but I really believe it. I believe anything is possible in America. It's really quite a wonderful place, where horizons are limitless. For me, it was like lifting the blinkers from my eyes."
Theatrically speaking, McLean was a late bloomer. But he's off to a running start this year, portraying one of the the ill-fated members of the Donner party in the North Coast Repertory's critically acclaimed production of "Devour the Snow."
"Getting the role was a gift from God," McLean said. "I came from a working-class background in Wales. Opportunities in the performing arts were limited, and it didn't seem feasible to even consider a career in acting. It took me a little while to start asking questions about what I really wanted to do."
In the meantime, McClean pursued a law degree, graduating with honors from the University of Warwick in 1981. But he realized that "I was a square peg in a round hole. Law, particularly in Great Britain, is very conservative. You have to fit the role, and I decided I didn't look good in a wig."
Since Great Britain was in the throes of a recession, and he had friends in San Diego, McClean moved here after graduation and joined the Old Globe Theatre as a paid technical intern.
"I did a lot of everything there, building sets and learning all aspects of production. I got a shortcut to an education at the Globe, and I felt at that time that I had entered a wonderland of theater."
The stint with the Old Globe led to the permanent post with the La Jolla Museum, a responsibility that at first left McLean little time for moonlighting.
"Acting was something I always wanted to do," he said, "but it wasn't until recently that I have been able to commit my evenings. Taking care of the administration of the auditorium as a business and curating everything the museum does in performing was not a 9-to-5 job."
Last year, however, McClean found a way to reconcile his two loves. Garnering the attention of director Edythe Pirazzini of the now-defunct Mission Playhouse, he made his stage debut in "Dylan."
"It's taken me so long to get up and act, because I just wasn't confident enough," he said. "I had a fear of performing. But, about the first week into the run, I felt comfortable, and I've been feeling comfortable on stage ever since. Acting is very exhilarating.
"But I'm pretty realistic. I realized I had no formal training other than a little studying with William Ball in Los Angeles, and I knew I'd need a basic education in acting. I've applied to schools for this summer, including the South Coast Rep and the La Jolla Playhouse, and I've already been accepted at South Coast."
Despite his lack of experience, McLean is holding his own in the difficult role of Bill Foster in "Devour the Snow," acting alongside seasoned veterans such as Robert Nuismer, Susan Herder and Frederick Edmund.
"I'm grateful to Edythe Pirazzini, who took a big risk, and Olive Blackistone--two of the heavyweight women directors in town. Olive was aware that I'm lacking experience, but her instincts told her I had this character in me."
McClean's character in "Devour the Snow" is a dark, brooding man. Playwright Abe Polsky made him the most laconic character in the drama, but left him on stage for most of the action.
"Bill Foster has much to hide," McLean said. "He's a murderer, and he's had to resort to cannibalism. The biggest challenge is that it's a silent part. I'm on stage an hour and 5 minutes, but I'm actually only talking for a few minutes. You have to be acting every minute, whether you have lines to speak or not, and that's difficult."
Although McClean loves his craft, he describes this role as "a painful experience. I come off the stage quite distraught," he said. "The role calls upon me to break down, and, as far as possible, you have to find something inside yourself to prepare you.
"I haven't killed anyone and I haven't committed cannibalism," he said, "but I feel I have a duty to portray this person so people will understand. Since I'm doing this show, I've been very morbid. I want to keep the character alive in my mind all the time."
Buoyed by the success of his second try at acting, McClean is gearing up for the next step: a professional agent, Equity membership and even a crack at stand-up comedy.
"I'm trying to work up the nerve to do a Comedy Store revue," he said, "and I'm interested in doing a one-man show."